China, Japan and the Islands: What Do the Tensions Mean?

A ChinaFile Conversation

How did the Diaoyu, Spratly, and Paracel islands come to replace Taiwan as the main source of tension for maritime Asia? And how are we to explain the fact that China’s foreign policy toward its Asian neighbors has now morphed from such slogans as: “Keep our heads down, and bide our time” of the Deng Xiaoping era, and the notion of “Peaceful rise” elaborated by Hu Jintao as a way to reassure adjacent countries that China’s ascendancy would not spell conflict, to the overtly nationalistic, even truculent, new posturing adopted by the Chinese government over a handful of uninhabited islands?

To have alienated Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Borneo so thoroughly, after having expended so much earlier capital winning their hearts and minds with benevolent soft power efforts, is quite a dramatic turn-around in fortunes.

What’s up?

It is hardly an original insight to suggest that leaders in China, as elsewhere, have often been tempted to turn to nationalism as a binding agent for domestic dissension. And, since these islands raise the always emotional issue of national sovereignty, they do provide a convenient way to outsource targets of people’s more immediate concern, especially at a time when grievances on the home front—from the growing corruption, pollution, inequality, infringements of peoples’ rights, and land confiscations—are proliferating.

But, even if China’s claims to sovereign rights over these far-flung specks of real estate were ultimately to prove justified, does it currently advance China’s national interest to pursue them in such a pugnacious and alienating way? It is hard to give any other answer but: No! Especially since what China has so ardently sought over the past century and a half is not just a restoration of its wealth and power (and ability to protect itself), but global respect. Suffice it to say, there has been precious little global respect to be had for China through such a strategy. So why have they felt compelled to proceed as they have?

I have the distinct sense that the drama we see being acted out in this web of disputes has another dimension, one that is as much psychological as geo-political. Presented at long last with the opportunity to put the shoe on the other foot, certain Chinese leaders feel almost involuntarily that it is now payback time. Indeed, many Chinese people, who have chafed under their country’s history of victimization, may also find the cathartic and gratifying exercise of watching their country’s new power put victoriously to test psychologically irresistible. After all, it is almost axiomatic that the oppressed often develop an irrepressible urge to engage in acts that flirt with rendering they themselves as oppressors as a way to demonstrate that they have irrevocably transcended their humiliating former condition of helplessness.

For China to have been acted upon in as grievous a fashion as it historically has was an undeniably bitter and painful experience, one that may now seem unassuageable except by the kinds of muscle flexing and demonstrations of power which are now being risked in the waters around China. While such acting-out may seem to be justified by sovereign incursion, it also has an undeniable psychological logic that promises a deceptive kind of gratification. But, in the real world of power-political affairs, such acting-out is also dangerous in ways that end up serving no one.

What these island disputes suggests about China is that its search for new wealth and power, fuqiang 富强, born out of an understandable urge to protect “the motherland” from foreign predation as the Qing Dynasty collapsed, may have now passed something of a milestone. Initially inspired by a defensive impulse, one wonders whether it is not now gaining a new and unwelcomed aggressive dimension. If so, should this new impulse not be tempered, it could end up as a serious impediment to the ongoing rise of a China that is viewed as “peaceful” and embraced by its neighbors. This would not only be harmful to China and the Chinese people, but to U.S.-Chinese relations as well as all the people of this increasingly dynamic and important region of our newly globalized world.


To broaden the scope of our conversation a bit, this “wealth and power” complex is something that runs throughout modern East Asian history, and remains a core element in the legitimacy of current governments. Shinzo Abe, after winning the election to become Japan’s prime minister, promised that “we are going to win back Japan and build a strong country, a prosperous country.” South Korea’s newly elected president Park Geun-hye campaigned on her father’s legacy of having transformed South Korea into a middle class “middle power.” North Korea’s young Respected Leader, Kim Jong Un, is projecting himself as a populist leader determined to restore the DPRK to being a “strong and prosperous great country” (kangsong taeguk).

This common telos can lend a striking pragmatism to East Asian relations, when leaders see it as in their country’s economic interest to resolve, or at least shelve, ideological and historical disputes. Deng Xiaoping showed that kind of pragmatism in tabling many issues with Japan, including territorial disputes, for the sake of China’s economic development—as Ezra Vogel’s recent biography shows in detail. Likewise Park Chung-hee forced through a still controversial normalization package with Japan in order the gain the sizeable economic aid package that came with it. But they also left behind ticking time bombs of deep-seated grievances held by Chinese and South Koreans toward Japan for the brutalities of Japanese imperialism, which dominated the first half of the 20th century.

A stagnant, if not declining, Japan has just elected a nationalist leader. A rising China, perhaps but not necessarily on track to emerge as a 21st century superpower, has just selected an equally nationalist leader. Should both men, and their publics, focus on the “wealth” part of the equation, they will presumably find a way to once again table this dispute. But should Xi Jinping feel it is time for China to demonstrate its newfound “power,” and/or should Shinzo Abe determine that Japan needs to showcase its capacity to flex its muscles, despite a pacifist constitution, then the situation would seem to be bound to get worse before it gets better. Perhaps the most volatile element is the third one—the yearning for respect. China has been waiting almost 200 years to interact with the world from a position of equal, if not superior, strength. Japan is struggling after two decades of seeing its place in the world slip from under its feet. Given their unresolved historical disputes, and the very different ways in which young Chinese and young Japanese are taught to understand their past, even if this round of tension of the Diaoyu/ Senkaku islands dissipates without serious incident, it would seem a matter of time before another flare up.


I see the domestic drivers of China’s foreign policy as more complicated than some unified political psychology driven by history.   (But then I’m a comparative political scientist and you’re a historian.)   For one thing, the two maritime conflicts – the Senkaku/Diaoyu one and the South China Sea one – have different domestic roots.   The East China Sea is a focal point for popular nationalism because it involves relations with Japan which have been a hot button domestic issue in China for some time.  The South China Sea issue is different; it was not the focus of much public attention until fairly recently.  China’s rhetoric and actions in the South China Sea became more assertive after quite a few years of trying to work things out with the other claimants, including agreeing to the declaration on the code of conduct.    So, I don’t see Beijing’s more assertive approach to the South China Sea as driven by popular nationalism per se.   Instead, it emerged out of the fragmented nature of the Chinese foreign policy process and the many new bureaucratic actors. Linda Jakobson and Dean Knox did a great report on these new actors for SIPRI nd Stephanie Klein Albrecht broke open the black box around the messy bureaucratic politics of the South China Sea issues for the International Crisis Group.  A lot of different maritime interest groups got bigger budgets, more ships, more bureaucratic influence by stirring up nationalist emotions around South China Sea sovereignty disputes.  And unfortunately it looks like the Chinese government let its policies in the South China Sea be hijacked by those interest groups within the state in a way that has harmed its relations with Southeast Asia.

So the two maritime issues are quite different: the East China Sea being driven by powerful forces of popular nationalism, and the South China Sea being driven more top-down by the nature of the foreign policy process.


It is with some trepidation that one raises psychological interpretations of foreign affairs, especially in the case of China, which has never been renowned for its interest in reflecting on this aspect of human interaction. And, surely there are legitimate political interests, factions and policies that are conditioning what gets done by Beijing in regard to all these islands. However, whenever a country really gets fired up with zeal over something outside its conventional boundaries, as China seems on the verge of doing, one must ask: What's the pay off? This is especially true when the consequences could be so manifestly negative.

So, a question for my blogging colleagues is: How does one factor these kinds of "softer" considerations into such disputes in a way that does not sound too Dr. Phil-ish?

Just a quick comment on that New York Times piece. While I very much respect [Chris] Buckley’s work, the way the piece is set up seems to draw implicit connection between Xi’s comments on “core national interests” and the Senkakus/Diaoyu islands. Or at least it could be interpreted as such. But I don't recall seeing anywhere that the  Diaoyu are considered China’s core national interests, which does have a specific geopolitical and national security meaning. I’m not particularly surprised that Xi would articulate such a foreign policy vision. I’ve thought of him as something of a “liberal nationalist”--tougher on foreign policy but also believes in a certain set of economic reforms domestically. To me, his repeated invocation of the “Chinese Dream” is along the lines of liberal nationalist and the fuqiang concept that John and Orville have brought up.



I think it's still too early to have a real sense of who Xi Jinping actually is, much less, what direction he will choose - or be able - to lead his country.

The question that I am watching is this: Having at last attained so big a piece of the long-yearned for goal of “wealth and power,” how will China choose to exhibit and use this new, and in many ways well-deserved, wealth and power in the next few years?

 I would only add to these insightful comments the perspective of the official post-Tiananmen historical narrative. When I studied in China in the early seventies, Japan was not the focus of popular anger: indeed, I remember the banner that greeted a visiting Japanese delegation at Fudan, which read, May the friendship between the Japanese and Chinese people continue through the generations!  References to any lapses in friendship in the previous generation were not well received.

 So what changed? Julia Lovell’s excellent account of this in The Opium War is one among several: a new narrative to justify the continuing need for the Communist Party was set as a matter of national security. It depended not on the lost promises of socialism but on the need to protect China from its enemies: hence the rash of museum building, patriotic education and cultivation of the national humiliation trope.   Japan is a particularly neuralgic subject for its role in the twentieth century, as we all know, but it is also worth noting that the first references to national humiliation in the wave of self-examination that comes with the arrival of foreign powers comes not, as we might expect, after the Opium Wars but after the defeat of China by Japan in 1895.       


It is an interesting fact that, whereas the anti-Japanese sentiment which emmanated from WW II (and was real)  was largely banked by the Party and State during the Mao and Deng era (especially under Hu Jintao), was fanned back to flame again more recently. So, one must ask, "What did the leaders view as being gained by this exercise?" Especially since Japan had become such a significant trading partner?